Both teams are structurally the same. Their cores and styles of play remain intact, while a few spare parts littered across the fringes of the rosters have changed. In some sense, this makes the matchup that much more difficult: There are very few curveballs—whether through play designs or lineup combinations—that either team can toss.
What does exist, however, is seven games of film from last year's Finals, which will certainly be scrutinized by both coaching staffs to create even the slightest of advantages. For Miami, that's seven games of tape to get a handle on the Spurs' offense, which posted a 104.5 offensive rating against them (per to NBA.com). That would have been 10th best in the league last year, and only slightly below the 105.9 offensive rating San Antonio sported during the 2012-2013 season.
Luckily for Miami, its offense did most of the heavy lifting during the 2013 Finals. Their 106.1 offensive rating bested that subpar 104.5 defensive rating, and it was two crucial offensive plays that handed them an NBA title. First, a Ray Allen corner three-pointer to keep the series alive in Game 6, and then a LeBron James step-back jumper to seal the title in Game 7.
Looking at this year's series, Miami cannot expect a repeat performance on the offensive end. Especially given time to study their tendencies and game plan last year, San Antonio will be more than prepared to push Miami into less effective offensive basketball.
Defense, however, is what can still carry Miami. They have the advantage in overall team speed, and their pick-and-roll double teams throw everyone into chaos. San Antonio countered that heavy ball pressure by slipping the pick-and-roll last year—which means that the picker actually fakes the pick before quickly diving to the basket—in order to give the ball-handler time to pass without drawing a trap.
Miami will be ready for this. As Grantland's Zach Lowe details, Miami actually switched up its pick-and-roll coverage against Indiana to a more conservative, less trap-happy approach. We can expect more of this against San Antonio, as well as other wrinkles.
Quite simply, Miami's biggest problem against San Antonio's offense in last year's Finals was Tony Parker finding rolling bigs with pocket passes—a quick and little bounce pass that threads the needle between the two pick-and-roll defenders.
Here's an example with Parker and Tiago Splitter from last year's Finals, with Splitter creating separation moments after slipping the screen.
Splitter has already fully released from the crowded pick-and-roll area, moving toward the short corner. Because he doesn't actually make any contact with Parker's man—Mario Chalmers—he's able to duck away from the chaos quickly. This also puts Chris Bosh, who's guarding Splitter, on his heels, unable to fully commit to any sort of trap.
This sticks him in a weird middle ground, neither fully pressuring Parker with an organized trap or sitting back with the rolling Splitter. Parker takes advantage of the space between Bosh and Chalmers by throwing a pocket pass right between them, and Splitter gets a layup.
Here's the play in full:
Miami will certainly anticipate this type of action from San Antonio, tightening up the gaps in their traps and having more active hands against bounce passes. But that's when San Antonio can hit them with the counter to the counter: the re-screen.
Often times in pick-and-roll situations a big man isn't able to get a piece of the man guarding the ball on the initial screen. With Miami players often lunging out and trapping, this happens more often than not. San Antonio turned that aggression against Miami last year by setting a second screen with the same big man, known as a re-screen.
Since Miami bigs take on the extra burden of trapping and then hustling to recover, there's a brief window to catch these bigs wrong-footed.
That's what San Antonio does here, with Duncan re-screening Chalmers. After Duncan sets the first screen and slips, Miami does a good job forcing Parker into a backpedal while simultaneously cutting off any type of pocket pass.
But as Bosh scrambles back to Duncan at the free-throw line, Duncan immediately pivots to screen again. Chalmers, who's completely engaged with Parker post-trap and therefore drawn out a bit too far from the three-point line and too close to Parker, isn't spatially aware enough to avoid the screen.
That's why Duncan is able to really knock him off his line with the second screen, while Bosh is now completely dropped back after getting caught off guard by Duncan heading in for the second screen.
San Antonio now has the room it needs to operate out of the pick-and-roll. As Parker turns the corner and Chalmers dashes back to him, Bosh has no choice but to pick Parker up. Duncan reads this action and pops to the top of the key, catching a throw-back pass from Parker.
This sets off a chain reaction that leads to an open shot: Dwyane Wade pinches in to help; the pick-and-pop action forces Wade to completely rotate to Duncan, who's now wide open; Wade's original man, Danny Green, is open as well. With one quick swing, the Spurs generate a wide open three-point shot.
Maybe Wade should have given up the long two-pointer to Duncan instead of leaving Green, but it's the pick-and-roll re-screen that puts him in this precarious position.
As with any aggressive strategy, Miami's pick-and-roll coverage is high risk, high reward. Most NBA teams get sped up by the Heat, making decisions too quickly and trying to hit the home-run pass.
San Antonio, however, has a very calculating, low-risk offense. They don't panic when they face extra pressure, but simply continue to make the easy pass or play until a scoring opportunity presents itself.
It will be very interesting to see whether Miami alters its defense from last year or sticks to the same principles. We saw them change it up against Indiana, so it's highly probable they'll throw something new at San Antonio.
Either way it will be a chess match. Xs and Os take on even greater importance when teams have seen each other numerous times, because it's the tiniest of adjustments or details that can swing a series. Erik Spoelstra and Gregg Popovich are two of the best in the league at this type of strategizing, so they'll both have their hands full.
Miami's particular focus will have to be on defense. Not only is it important considering they struggled to handle San Antonio's offense last year, but it also catalyzes their offense. When Miami is playing great defense, they force turnovers. When they force turnovers, they run. When they run, James gets the ball in the open floor, where he's most dangerous.
This is how the Miami Heat play their best basketball: defense, then offense. If they want to repeat in 2014, that will be the winning formula.